The Varbitsa river is situated in the heart of the Kardjali region of Bulgaria – one of the country’s most interesting and challenging regions. It is a mixed area (three languages, two main religions – Christian and Muslim – and three ethnicities) which was once expected to blow up inter-ethnic strife and destabilization.
From 1998, in preparation for coming Bulgarian Water Law and EU Water Framework Directive, the Varbitsa watershed council was set up as a pilot to test on-site effective and participatory approaches to river resource management and, while contributing to regional development, also to provide models for replication across the country and become the basis for new legislation The Council covers the Varbitsa river, tributary to the Arda in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria (Kardjali region).
Initially an arena for inter-community dialogue and co-operation, the Council evolved into problem-solver and development arena particularly favoured by local authorities who abide by the Plan drawn up by the Council’s general meeting in 2001 (solving problems on a river-scale rather than a municipality-scale).
Approach was stakeholder meetings and common planning, plus media presence and lobbying. Immediate benefits included: cessation of inter-community conflict over access to water; stoppage of leakage from tailings reservoir; removing the Zlatograd rubbish dump, source of much pollution, to a safer area; a full analysis of river “hot-spots”; increased control over gravelling company activities; and defense of river against industrial plans.
A bottom-up, stakeholder-approach, based on trust and participation proved to be the key to unlocking local energies and resources, and to rapid action on shared goals. From 2001, legislation is being amended in a participatory way on the basis of full analyses of the Varbitsa experience.
Participatory, open, citizen-friendly and bottom-up approaches are more efficient than top-down administrative approaches (the latter being traditional for the country).
Importance of the case for IWRM
The case has become a test case for successful practices, legislative change, and convincing government that participation of communities and local authorities is a resource for efficiency rather than a risk.
The case illustrates both the advantages (in terms of collecting and focusingunused energies) and the difficulties (in terms of “selling” the participatory resultto a central government largely suspicious of local initiative) of an NGO-initiated,bottom-up local approach to IWRM.
Photo credit: Mila Ivanova